Tour Aotearoa Day 8 – Timber Lodge to Tamarunui

My tyres can’t remember what paved roads feel like. This morning I left the peaceful haven of the Timber Lodge and continued along the second half of the Timber Trail mountain bike route. It was easier than yesterday’s section, but no less dramatic as I continued riding through native forest. A particular highlight was the large suspension bridges that spanned vertiginous valleys. I creaked across them revelling at the views and clenching my handlebars tighter with each gentle sway and bounce of the bridge. Riding the Timber Trail definitely hasn’t been the easiest or fastest way to cycle this section of New Zealand, but it would be hard to beat in terms of drama. If I’d wanted the easiest or fastest way to travel across New Zealand I wouldn’t have chosen a bike; I want adventure and connection with the landscapes.

From Ongarue, where the Timber Trail ends, I followed a gravel road and descended from verdant hills into Tamarunui. Its population of 4,800 makes it the largest settlement for a long distance, and the translation of its Maori name is ‘Place of Big Shelter’, which made it a tempting place to stop for the night. For the Maori, living in Tamarunui would have been like buying a house beside a motorway as its central location was combined with the excellent transport links that come from its position on the junction of the Whanganui and Ongarue Rivers and allowed canoe travel in different directions. Several different iwi (tribes or nations of Maori people) lived here together in relative peace.

And then the pioneers arrived by steamboat at the end of the 19th century, bringing explorers and settlers who began to buy swathes of land and prospect its potential for coal mining, forestry and farming.

Today Tamarunui more closely resembles a ghost town. I walked along Main Street, passing mostly closed buildings where the shadows of its former glory were still just about visible amidst their dilapidated facades. The town was once a thriving stop on the trunk railroad, but I just saw a few graffitied trains left idling on train tracks, going nowhere.

I checked into the Alexander Motel early; it offered clean and comfortable accommodation, but mostly to workers who had been brought in from other areas on contract. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was an area with great potential if only the investment was available. Some companies are offering cycling expeditions into the Pureora Forest, while others return to the town’s Maori roots and offer canoe expeditions along the Whanganui River. Having arrived in town early and been for an exploratory wander, I went for an afternoon nap, and then out for dinner to a Thai Restaurant. I could have carried on and made some more miles this afternoon, but a 3,000 kilometre long bike tour is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s vital to balance the need for recovery, with the desire to push more miles out. It’s always in the back of my mind that there are more remote, more challenging days waiting ahead, and I want to be starting those in the best physical fitness possible.

Besides, I want to avoid this bicycle adventure becoming a race through all these unique and wonderful spots – places I’ll possibly never return to. One of the great joys of a bike tour is stopping in a small town you’ve never heard of – the kind of place tourists would hardly ever choose to visit – and watching ordinary life unfold.